The American in One Room event.

A demographically representative sample of the voting electorate assembles to discuss policy issues as part of the America in One Room event in 2019.

(Photo: ritvsihu45/Flickr/CC BY-SA 3.0)

To Save US Democracy, Prioritize the Common Good

The run-up to this year’s general election is the occasion to rekindle the democratic spirit and reassemble a majority to vote for candidates committed to the democratic commonwealth.

“A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.”—Barbara Jordon

“In a politically diverse nation, only by finding… common ground can we achieve results for the common good.”—Olympia Snowe

“Democratic politics should serve the common good.”—Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson

These are fractured times that imperil democracy in the Western world and beyond. The authoritarian surge of former President Donald Trump’s MAGA movement is the imminent menace in the U.S. His notorious plans for a second term in the White House are flagrant and wholly antidemocratic. There is no provision for the common good in Trump’s autocratic scheme nor any corresponding sense of common ground, and compromise is out of reach. Perhaps more importantly, we the people are at risk of forgetting democracy’s contribution to the common good.

The Common Good in Principle

The principle of the common good is the glue that bonds a pluralistic people—a diverse people marked by socioeconomic, religious, racial, ethnic, and other differences—into a political community without effacing diversity. It holds the separate pieces together, at least enough of them, to sustain a functioning democracy. For that purpose, the general welfare requires discovering common ground where different interests intersect and interdependencies can be located, and even compromising when necessary.

We don’t think enough in these troubled days about what we hold in common and what we rely on as individuals for our own advancement and well-being. Balancing an overemphasis on individualism with a renewed regard for the commonwealth is vital to restoring democratic prospects. As Robert Reich has observed, we have lost our sense of connectedness to one another and to our democratic ideals. Over the last half century, our talk has been more about personal aggrandizement than the common good. We’ve lost sight of “what we owe one another as members of the same society… of what connects us, of what we hold in common… [of] the ideals and principles we share, and the mutual obligations those principles entail” (The Common Good, 2020, pp. 4-6).

Without a sense of the commonwealth, demagogues can more readily turn people against one another, whereas recognizing our interdependence creates a framework for deliberating what contributes to the good of society and what sacrifices are warranted.

The general idea of the common good—that one’s individual welfare is tied to the welfare of the broader community—signifies that It is a relational benefit and a relational obligation. Just as we rely individually and together on educational opportunities, public safety, and roadways, for example, we are obliged to support them with our taxes. These are resources and interests shared by a broad range of citizens rather than a select few.

The common good is a necessarily abstract but robust value concept subject to variations of interpretation and application. It imparts a galvanizing standard of democratic life, serves as a gateway to other democratic principles such as equality and fairness, supplies a standpoint for democratic deliberation, and provides a touchstone for reassembling a now scattered democratic majority. Without putting too fine a point on it, the common good represents a political ethic of reasoning, deliberating, and acting out of concern for the members of the political community as a whole—an ethic of solidarity, civic friendship, and interdependence.

Promoting the principle of a common good can sound pious, vacuous, and futile or just corny, old fashioned, and irrelevant (Reich, p. 14). William Galston, though, insists the principle has real content and utility, and Reich (pp. 28, 34) maintains it is crucial to national identity and vital to sustaining democratic governance. It is an ideal that prompts consideration of how individual goals are socially enabled. Without a sense of the commonwealth, demagogues can more readily turn people against one another, whereas recognizing our interdependence creates a framework for deliberating what contributes to the good of society and what sacrifices are warranted. Where there is competition between private interests and public interests, Galston observes, the key is to find a “zone of overlap” between the two, when possible, to enable “mutually beneficial cooperation.”

Sorting Common Good Practices

Bad things happen when the promise to serve the common good is abused or abandoned. Proclaiming the common good in name only is insufficient, even suspicious, sans principled conduct. Exploitation corrupts politics and demoralizes democracy. As reformer Saul Alinsky avowed, “In this world laws are written for the lofty aim of ‘the common good’ and then… acted out in life on the basis of the common greed.”

Besides greed, dubious claims on the common good must be sorted as well. Is conservative legal theorist Adrian Vermeule’s proposed doctrine of “common good constitutionalism,” for instance, actually a doctrine in support of authoritarian-theocratic government instead of a principled commitment to the community’s general welfare, as Micah Schwartzman and Richard Schragger maintain? Is it a doctrine that would preclude same-sex marriage, ban abortion, and impose other legal restrictions consistent with particular religious ends? Is this a legitimate sense of the common good for a pluralistic polity?

Sorting out the principle of the common good in its various applications, as difficult as that can be, is better than ignoring affronts to the commonwealth. When principle is abandoned, Chris Hedges points out, the quest for power and profit prevails over the general welfare. Unregulated corporations abuse the public good, according to Henry Giroux, but also politicians plunder the body politic to fund a military state, wage wars, and grant tax benefits to the wealthy while underfunding public education and increasing the scale of poverty.

Democracy for the Common Good

The principle of the common good, along with other key values, inspirits democracy, but democracy itself also adds to the public’s general well-being. It is a common good, certainly in contrast to the dark alternative of authoritarianism.

Democracy’s ethos of collective self-rule is a we-are-all-in-it-together tenet of governance. In practice, not just principle, democracy serves the interests of all citizens better than autocratic governments, as Robert Deacon has shown. Good governance is “accountable, transparent, inclusive, participatory and representative,” in the words of Anthony Smith. In Aristotelian terms, good governance by the many is polity. Healthy democracy—that which is transparent and open to public debate—constitutes a polity prepared to meet public-welfare challenges such as social justice and environmental sustainability. In short, Samuel Freeman argues, the common-good role of constitutional democracy is to promote the common good.

Donald Trump embodies the negation of democracy’s common-good ethic.

That said, the country’s continuing experiment in democracy is insecure and in need of revitalization as a vehicle of the common good. Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw in the early 19th century that the pursuit of individual interests would one day crowd out concern for the community. Indeed, individualism and the common good are now badly out of balance. Richard Weissbourd and Chris Murphy observe that a “story of us” that resonates with a diverse people and features community values of “fairness, decency, caring, respect, honesty, loyalty, and hard work” needs to be told, and that government “needs to put front and center the challenge of restoring Americans’ commitment to their communities and our collective life.” This is the moment, they insist, “to raise up concerns for the common good.”

Donald Trump embodies the negation of democracy’s common-good ethic. His propensity to grift, manifested in his presidential term, treats politics as a zero-sum game in the service of his personal enrichment. Following his example, his cabinet awarded large contracts to business and political allies. Trump’s “art of the steal” instincts, writes Caroline Fredrickson, “drive corruption and kleptocracy” of the kind practiced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs who plunder their country’s wealth and resources. Instead of focusing on the common good—such as providing clean water, affordable healthcare, and better public transportation; transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy; and investing in the development of good jobs—Trump fixates on personal profit achieved by punishing enemies and favoring friends, which “could be fatal for our democracy” should he win a second term in office.

The run-up to this year’s general election is the occasion to rekindle the democratic spirit and reassemble a majority to vote for candidates committed to the democratic commonwealth. Solidarity is fundamental to democracy. Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix insist that “we need to make cultivating solidarity a national priority” and to be reminded that “our lives and our fates are connected,” rather than succumb to suspicion, cynicism, disengagement, and antagonism.

Democracy will falter, and with it the commonwealth will be sacrificed, should the public acquiesce to the divide-and-conquer demagoguery of authoritarians who aim to serve themselves and special interests by inflaming social and political divisions and resentments.

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